Bad reporting has made Darfur's conflict worse, and might even lead to an unnecessary international war (Reuters)
Darfur's accidental warmongers by Ruth Gidley and Mark Snelling, Alertnet journalists, Reuters AlertNet Newsblog, July 7, 2006 [via POTP]:
Bad reporting has made Darfur's conflict worse, and might even lead to an unnecessary international war, a British journalist argues.
Sloppy journalism has prolonged war in Sudan's troubled western Darfur region and could end up complicit in another Western invasion. It's a strong claim, but journalist Jonathan Steele of the Guardian newspaper can back it up with a good argument.
Speaking at a conference organised by the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) in London, he says a lot of reporting on Darfur has oversimplified a complex conflict so much that it's given some of the players in the war the idea they've got enough international backing to keep fighting.
In their eagerness to paint Khartoum's hardline Islamist government as the baddies, reports have failed to point out the rebels' many failings, he says, including the humanitarian problems that they themselves have created.
But Steele is not letting Khartoum or the government-backed "Janjaweed" militia off the hook. "I'm not saying the rebels did more than the government-backed militia. And I'm not trying to equate two sides as though they were equally guilty."
But, he says: "In making heroes of the rebels and constantly calling for sanctions, it's had the knock-on effect of making rebels more intransigent."
The mainstream media, especially in the United States, has tried to portray Darfur with the same template it used to depict Sudan's north-south war - which, in the broad brushstrokes of standard wire agency reporting, pitted a largely Christian and animist south against Khartoum's Islamist government forces from the Arab-influenced north.
As a result, it took a lot of journalists a while to find out there weren't any oppressed Christians in Darfur. And once they learnt it wasn't about religion, they portrayed it as a conflict between government-backed Arabs and Africans, and assumed that slavery was an issue.
They largely ignored the tension between pastoralist peoples and nomads which have led to stretched resources, against a backdrop of ecological disaster and rising population as the desert encroaches from the north.
Steele says the media were quick to demand sanctions and intervention, ignoring a peace process which couldn't be shown on camera.
It's sloppy journalism, but does it matter? Steele argues that making the conflict into a moral argument could have catastrophic consequences.
"It has all the hallmarks of the run-up to the West's last three wars (Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq)," he says.
Other experts at the RUSI conference paint no less grim a picture. Aid is now hard to deliver except by plane because of bandit attacks, Bob Arnot of aid agency umbrella group Operation Lifeline says.
Urbanisation is also a big theme in Darfur. Some human rights activists say the government has deliberately tried to put people into cities where they're easier to control. Whether it's a policy or an accident of war, Darfur's urban population has risen dramatically.
The town of Nyala in south Sudan has swollen to 1.5 million people, up from a population of 300,000 in 1999, according to Professor Sean O'Fahey of the Norwegian University of Bergen. "It's now the second-largest town in Sudan," he says.
Photo: Women hold the weapons belonging to the Sudanese Liberation Army fighters at Galap camp (Reuters)